Bruce Martin
Tuesday February 5th, 2008

NASCAR's sanctioning body finds itself in a rather perplexing situation as the season approaches, just two weeks after chairman Brian France emphasized going "back to the basics" in his state of the sport address.

After years of seemingly perpetual change in stock car racing, the grassroots fans have turned apathetic to the sport they once loved. Television ratings are down and ticket sales have taken a significant dip at many tracks.

So, to remedy the situation, NASCAR looks to channel its colorful past rather than its corporate present.

There are some who even think the sport should re-embrace country music, a familiar NASCAR soundtrack for nearly 50 years until getting pushed aside in favor of rock music over the last decade.

"Going back to the core race fans, maybe we need a little more George Strait or Alan Jackson out there," said team owner Richard Childress, a devout country music fan who hails from the rolling hills of Davidson County, N.C. "Maybe that would help us."

Bringing in acts like Third Eye Blind and Kelly Clarkson in an effort to increase the sport's "cool" factor left a sour tune in the ears of NASCAR's most loyal followers.

Just one day after France's proclamation, Daytona International Speedway announced the pre-race show for this year's 50th Daytona 500 would be Brooks & Dunn.

Please allow a little chuckle here. Because if NASCAR thinks it can solve its popularity problems by reverting back to the "good old days" with country music, what's the reaction when all the Generation X fans head to the exits?

NASCAR takes great delight in the fact that the 18-to-35 age group has become its strongest demographic of fans while the 55-year-olds are on the decline in terms of attendance and television viewership. But the 18-to-35 demographic may be the most fickle in society, more influenced by passing trends than a deep and sustained love of anything.

Start playing country music again and these fans may scream, "See, this is a red-neck sport. It's not cool. I'm outta here."

Nobody is passing judgment on what type of music is considered cool because, after all, Faith Hill would be considered fashionable regardless of genre. But turn on the Winter X Games or Pro Beach Volleyball or anything involving Red Bull and country music doesn't appear on the playlist. No Trace Adkins, no Toby Keith.

NASCAR's problems run deeper than the pre-race soundtrack. Maybe a better solution would be lowering ticket prices and getting the drivers to be fan-friendly again. The current crop of drivers seems to enjoy pushing fans out of the way without stopping to sign an autograph.

The biggest misconception in sports is the catchphrase: NASCAR has the most accessible athletes in the world. That used to be true when Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were bigger-than-life heroes in the South.

In the 1980s, Bill Elliott was one of the heroes of the hard-core NASCAR fan. Now, 22 years since his first Daytona 500 win and 20 years since he won a second time, Elliott is still behind the wheel of a race car, racing in the shadows of drivers named Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne -- both tremendous drivers but representatives of a far different fan base.

"I've felt NASCAR has gotten away from its grass-roots fans," Elliott said. "They have gotten off in other directions for whatever reasons. They need to get back on that. Some of the tracks they have lost in the Southeast have not helped that. We go to California and it's hard to get the fan base we have in the East and Southeast especially.

"We need to get back and try to get that grassroots fan back to the race track, whichever way we can. I totally agree with that."

Today's drivers include a collection of coddled kids who are sometimes questionable in their attitudes and behavior towards the media and the ticket-buying spectator. Throw in a former Formula 1 driver from Colombia (Juan Pablo Montoya), a Scotsman who won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar title (Dario Franchitti), another former F-1 driver from Canada (Jacques Villeneuve) along with a fellow Canadian (Patrick Carpentier) -- and the die-hard, old-time NASCAR fan is confused.

"You have to have hometown heroes," Petty said. "There is so much more competition for the entertainment dollar. When I first came along, racing was the Southern sport. We didn't have football or baseball. We're getting diluted because so much more stuff is going on so if you can just hold your own, you'll be ahead of the game.

"If we stay status quo with our fans, then we are gaining because other sports are not."

And while the late Dale Earnhardt may have listened to country music, Dale Earnhardt Jr. races to the beat of a different tune, which has appealed to a younger audience.

Earnhardt's popularity has not gone unnoticed on chairman France, who said television ratings will improve and attendance will go up if Earnhardt starts winning more races.

"He is the marquee driver that we have, no different from the marquee franchises in other sports," France said. "We're not different from that. If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help. He has the biggest fan base and he will energize his fan base. If he has success, it will benefit us."

Earnhardt was nearly bewildered when told of France's comment that his success is a key element to NASCAR's success.

"Wow, that guy is telling me I'm driving television ratings?" Earnhardt responded. "There is no real answer to that question. But if the chairman of NASCAR, the top dude, makes that kind of statement, it makes you feel like you have to be the luckiest guy on the face of the earth.

"I'm the most popular driver and on the mind of the head dude to make a comment about me like that. That just blows my mind," Earnhardt added. "I would never believe that Brian France would say anything like that about me. Maybe he's trying to send me a message to get off my butt."

While times change, so do the tastes of sports fans. So something as simplistic as reverting back to country music doesn't mean the masses will return to NASCAR.

Jeff Burton finds the whole conversation to be a little strange, believing that memories of the past are often rooted in romanticism rather than realism.

"I'll be honest, I'm a little confused about the whole conversation about where our sport is with the quality of racing and I'm even more confused when I hear people long for the good old days," Burton said. "If you want to, we can pull the finishing sheet from the 1982 Southern 500 and show four or five cars on the lead lap. That's the good old days.

"We are in the good old days now. It's more competitive than it has ever been. It is what it is. Not every race is going to be as good as last year's Daytona 500. Not every football game is as good as the New York Giants game the other night. That's sports.

"But the health of this sport is going to be judged on the number of people watching it and that's how it should be."

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